I have an alter ego in the blogosphere. Here, it’s politics, but on Facebook I blog about popular music, usually leaning heavily towards rock and roll. And until a few days ago I never imagined that there would be any ideological cross-pollination to worry about. But then I had an epiphany…
I’ll start my little tale here- I blog about music to promote a fiction book that I wrote 3 years ago. The book is about a garage band from the early 70’s that was on the cusp of making it big, but then fell just short. I plot an improbable future success for the fictional band decades after they break up and go their separate ways, and then have some fun as our heroes revitalize and re-energize the sad state of contemporary music. Why is this relevant to the discussion of culture and politics today? Wait for it…
In my Facebook blog alter ego I feign expertise in the music industry. Do that, and you’re forced to become an expert, so daily research is often necessary. In the course of my research I happened upon a Rolling Stone (the magazine) Top 500 Rock Songs of all time list. As I scanned the list few names were unfamiliar to me, as I expected. At number 180 though I took note of a song, and a band, that I had never heard of.
But that wasn’t enough to send me down a rabbit hole looking for what I assumed to be marginal music, so I just kept scanning. At number 401 I happened upon the band again, so at that point my curiosity was piqued.
Big Star’s first album was titled #1 Record. Straight out of gate with a name like Big Star and an egotistical album cover self-proclaimed as a “Number One Record” it was clear that the band that I had unearthed felt that they had superior material, regardless of what anyone else thought.
They did. #1 Record is one of the great albums of the 70’s and NO ONE has ever heard of it. I know because I have asked many people as a test, and I’ve never found anyone who has ever heard of Big Star yet.
It was an intriguing mystery to say the least. How could a band from Memphis, Tennessee, produce a superior rock album only to have it completely disappear after its initial release?
A question that may have already occurred to you, also occurred to me. Was this first album the end? Nope. A year later they release a 2nd album that was also, in my humble opinion, fantastic. The 2nd album had the song September Gurls, which is the song that to this day sits proudly at the 180 slot on RS’s top 500 list. It’s almost a certainty that you have never heard it either, it also flopped horribly. They produced yet another album a year later, and couldn’t even find a distributor until 1978, and at that point Big Star did not even exist as a band anymore.
I have puzzled over this for well over a year now, and it has occurred to me that this story is strangely similar to the book that I wrote long before I had even heard of Big Star, and that correlation may have played a role in my initial interest of course. But now I have listened to all of their music, and I am supremely confident that they deserved airplay long ago. For some reason it was denied to them.
As I tested the various songs from the three albums I have became more and more incredulous. I wondered with each new discovery how it was possible that Big Star never made it. I think that I finally have the answer.
Early on I noticed a few overtly religious songs intermingled with what the casual listener would classify as standard rock and roll fare. From the first album, The Battle of El Goodo, which should also be on RS’s list, drops the line, “and at my side is God,” seemingly apropos of nothing. And this isn’t the “God is a tree, and a tree is God” deity that George Harrison et al sang about, this is the Judeo-Christian God of the Old and New Testament. Other songs from that first album make that clear. If you need further convincing the song Jesus Christ makes the playlist down the road.
This is not a “Christian” band however, and even if it was the progenitor of what has become a genre, Big Star, the hidden supernova of rock, just sang about God without proselytizing or being contrived. Alex Chilton, the chief songwriter for the band, simply wrote honest songs about his world. He was a Memphis boy, no doubt steeped in a southern religion just like everyone else at that time. It would have be easy for him to avoid the subject, but it is my contention that he was unwilling to do that. (Chilton is yet another story for another time.)
And here I think I’ve finally found the answer. Soon after Big Star signed with the record company Stax, Columbia bought them, and Columbia Records simply refused to distribute Big Star’s first album. It would be easy to assume that someone at Columbia just didn’t like that “Big Star” sound, but even this doesn’t explain refusing to issue what had already been produced. Columbia didn’t have to promote the band, all they had to do was press vinyl and put it in the stores.
I think it’s highly likely that Big Star’s references to God were its undoing in the corporate boardroom. Columbia Records was big enough to exercise a little political correctness even if profits took a hit. Big Star was a non-entity singing about an uncomfortable subject in 1971, they were expendable.
In the drugs, sex, and rock and roll universe of that era even the occasional acknowledgement of Jesus were unacceptable. So Alex Chilton and Big Star never had a chance. When other lesser bands were lavishly promoted, their record company failed to perform even perfunctory obligations. The only difference between them and the few bands of similar talent that I have detected is their unwillingness to avoid the standard American religious narrative.
The fight to make things right has found a perch here. On a recent road trip it occurred to me that Big Star is still excluded to this day. The standard “oldies” playlist that every classic rock station uses has been passed down mindlessly by the same corporate trolls who are still making the decisions on what constitutes the “best” music of the 60’s and 70’s.
The next time you have the opportunity to call a request line, ask for September Gurls. When you hear it in an elevator, some lazy afternoon in the distant future, you’ll know that Big Star’s supernova shine has finally arrived.